September 14th 1914

Since the outbreak of war on August 4th, a number of Old Dragons have been in action as part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) deployed to assist our allies against the German onslaught. We have received this account of the events of last month from Lieut. Victor Cowley, who is serving with the Royal Irish Rifles.          

V Cowley

Victor Cowley

At 1.30 a.m. that night (August 22nd – 23rd) we were sleeping comfortably in billets at Cipley when we got the order to prepare to move in the direction of Bavay. After marching and counter-marching we eventually started to entrench a position in a beetroot field. Hardly had we dug down a foot into the ground when the first shell burst over us, a fragment of it hitting one of the machine-guns and breaking off a piece which struck the sergeant on the head, doing no material damage.

The ground was soft and the earth flew as we burrowed like rabbits to get cover. It was the first time we had been under fire and we were all anxious to know what it felt like. The relief was wonderful when we found that though the air seemed thick with shells, we were still alive. The men began jeering at the shooting and singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’; however they were quietened down a little when two shells burst in the trench, one in the parapet and the other knocking the gun back into the trench and nearly taking off the head of No.1, who was working it.

From the first shot being fired till late in the evening it was one incessant bombardment, but of my section of eight they only killed one and wounded another. Several times we were almost buried alive by shells bursting in or near the parapet of the trench. It was most anxious work later in the darkness waiting for them to attack us, but when they did they were met by a fire which cannot have left many unhit. We could not wait till daylight to see the results of our work as we received the order to retire about midnight, and I must own that we were all quite relieved.

We heard that the French on our right hand had retired and that the Germans had started a very powerful enveloping movement round our left flank N.W of Mons, and it was touch and go whether or not they surrounded us.

We had to march night and day fighting a series of rear-guard actions the whole time, but the weight of the pursuit was relieved by the cavalry.

The men suffered terribly from sore feet and want of sleep; so much so that after a temporary halt two miles outside Le Cateau it was found impossible to wake some of the men when the regiment moved on again…  

Between 23rd and 29th August we marched 140 miles and fought two big battles (Mons and Le Cateau). This does not sound as trying as it was, but lack of food and sleep made it a perfect nightmare. The worst was marching at night as it was impossible to keep awake; I used to arrange with someone to lead me while I went to sleep, and in turn led them. It was no use riding my horse as when I went to sleep I used to fall off which woke me up too suddenly…

At every place one halted, excursions were made for eggs, bread and chickens, but one never knew if you would have time to cook them. I became an excellent cook, my forte being ‘aeroplane duck.’ The recipe for this was after having caught, killed and plucked your duck, to truss it with sticks like a man on the rack, then hang it from a tripod over a wood fire, turning it over when the underneath was cooked. The basting was done by filling its inside with bacon fat which melted and oozed through, giving it a delicious flavour…”

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